When the Nigerian airforce bombed the Rann refugee camp from the sky after mistaking it for a Boko Haram stronghold, killing 224 displaced civilians and 10 foreign aid workers in January 2017, it was far from an isolated incident. Instead, the episode was symptomatic of the failings that have plagued the Nigerian military’s counterinsurgency efforts. According to UN figures, nearly one third of the 881 children killed in conflict in Nigeria in 2017 died at the hands of the very people who should have been protecting them – the security forces – rather than the terrorist group Boko Haram.
A report from United Nations special envoy Agnes Callamard this month laid bare the extent of extrajudicial killings by the army, the failure to protect vulnerable civilians and the military’s complicity in mass killings. “The federal authorities and international parties are presiding over an injustice pressure cooker,” Ms Callamard said after a 12-day visit to the country, where she found a “generalised system of impunity”.
Her findings are concerning, yet unsurprising. Rather, they encapsulate all the problems facing Nigeria today, from chronic poverty and demographic growth to regional insecurity, under the umbrella of president Muhammadu Buhari’s ailing governance. Collectively these factors risk breaking Nigeria – a nation with so much potential and yet so little to cheer.
It is no surprise, for instance, that Ms Callamard found brutality to be most prevalent in the nation’s northwest and northeast, middle belt and south. Boko Haram’s 10-year insurgency has killed an estimated 27,000 people, according to the UN, and continues to uproot thousands annually in Nigeria’s impoverished north, many of whom have sought refuge in neighbouring Cameroon. Despite repeated promises, Mr Buhari has failed to bring stability to northeastern states such as Borno, caught between violent attacks by Boko Haram and counterinsurgency efforts and resulting in the displacement of 1.7 million people, with another 7.7m needing assistance.
With low morale, poor training and insufficient accountability in the army, there is little recourse to due process and the criminal justice system. Deaths in police custody, such as that of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, are rarely investigated, suspects are often held indefinitely without charge and to date, no member of the military or police force has been investigated or prosecuted for wrongdoing.
So insecure is Nigeria’s northeast that the domain of Islamic State West Africa has grown in strength, briefly leading to the seizure of the small town of Baga earlier this year. Just last week, ISIS claimed to have killed 10 Nigerian soldiers in a base in Gajiram.
In the country’s arid middle belt, a tit-for-tat conflict between mostly Christian farmers and Fulani Muslim herders over land and resources has been raging for years. Exacerbated by climate change and the influx of arms from as far afield as Libya, the fighting left 1,300 dead in the first half of 2018. Since 2011, an estimated 11,000 have been killed in the regional conflict deemed to be six times more deadly than Boko Haram’s terrorist campaign.
Mr Buhari, himself a Fulani Muslim, has been criticised for his slow response. But in trying to confront the issue, Ms Callamard’s report states, Nigeria’s security forces have not only failed to protect communities but fostered further distrust and fresh grievances. Meanwhile, in the oil-rich south, where the poor are denied the wealth that flows under their feet, a Biafra independence movement has been put down in recent years.
These flashpoints call for restraint and mediation. Instead, it seems the state has chosen violence. In December 2017, for example, the Nigerian airforce fired rockets at villages in the middle belt as a deterrent to stop communal violence, killing dozens of people in the process. In a separate incident that year in Mkievowro, villagers took refuge in a school, where 29 were killed after soldiers were allegedly bribed by Fulani herdsmen to do nothing. Although the soldiers were arrested, none of the survivors was asked to give evidence and it is not known if a trial ever happened. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have accused security forces of a string of other abuses.
Incompetence is a hallmark of Nigerian governance. After securing the presidency in 2015, promising strong, effective leadership, Mr Buhari took six months to name his cabinet. On his three main pledges – to fight corruption, revamp the economy and tackle insecurity –little has been achieved.
And yet he was easily re-elected for a second-term in February this year, defeating Atiku Abubakar, a septuagenarian who was making his fourth bid for the presidency. With neither candidate offering change, turnout sank to a record low of 35 per cent.
Last month Mr Buhari overhauled his cabinet in a bid to realise his agenda and eliminate infighting within the ruling All Progressives Congress which characterised his first term in office. But many Nigerians were left disappointed when loyalists were elevated to senior cabinet roles. It suggested Mr Buhari was more focused on rewarding those who had helped him secure re-election than transforming Nigeria for the better.
For one, the number of women was cut from 15 to seven in a 43-member cabinet. What must Mr Buhari’s supporters – who waved broomsticks at his rallies to symbolise his war on graft – think of the promotion of corrupt officials to ministerial roles? Bashir Magashi, Mr Buhari’s new defence minister, was found to have looted $550,000 from the state in the late 1990s, while serving as an adviser to then Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. He now holds the keys to a ministry with a budget of $440 million.
In a true reflection of Nigeria’s stagnant governance, Mr Buhari will continue in his role as petroleum minister, as well as ruling as president. He is now on course to celebrate his 80th birthday in office – and Nigerians are bracing themselves for more of the same.
The rise in extrajudicial killings identified by Mr Callamard therefore reflects not just the endemic brutality of the security forces but a wider breakdown of state institutions. Together with intercommunal grievances and extreme poverty, it is a combustible concoction.
Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy and oil producer, with a young, entrepreneurial population of 200 million. Yet more people live in extreme poverty in Nigeria than in any other nation on earth.
Mr Buhari's economic measures have hindered growth and fuelled corruption, particularly his clumsy foreign exchange policies, which starved local businesses of US dollars and unduly benefited those with connections at Nigeria’s central bank. Today the economy is propped up by foreign loans and the International Monetary Fund has raised the grim prospect of a recession.
Meanwhile, inequality has pervaded Nigerian society. While a wealthy few enjoy western amenities on plush Lagos island, more than 91 million Nigerians live on less than $2 a day. Many by the water in Lagos have had their shanties bulldozed – often while they slept – to make way for condominiums, sending thousands of informal settlers scrambling into the city.
Rampant violence, corruption and poverty across Nigeria have chipped away at the rule of law. Against that backdrop, extrajudicial killings have risen, fuelled by a lack of accountability within the battered and under-resourced security services. This is the tragedy of modern Nigeria.